State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Nevada

Here we have the curious case of Nevada, where statistics show that train ridership has effectively held steady from 2003 to 2014, registering a nominal 3.4% decline. What is curious is that the statistics are unlike any other state, as we will see.

Nevada has three passenger stations, all on the California Zephyr, Amtrak‘s long-distance overnight train between Chicago and Emeryville, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Going from east to west, Nevada’s stations are Elko, which in 2014 accounted for 11% of the state’s passengers, Winnemucca, which accounted for 6%, and Reno, which accounted for 83%. A fourth station, Sparks, previously served passengers in the Reno area. This pie chart shows the breakdown of passengers among these stations, year-by-year.

What is curious about Nevada is centered around the station of Sparks. In 2006, the Amtrak state-by-state ridership statistics carried this footnote: “In previous years, Reno usage was underreported and Sparks usage was overreported.” It doesn’t say more about why that was the case or by how much, but from 2005 to 2006, Reno ridership jumped by 19,012, or 34%, while Sparks fell by 18,883, or 88%. In the years since, Reno ridership has hovered between 62,509 (2007) and 78,827 (2013). Meanwhile, Sparks closed a few years later, on May 10, 2009. This line chart shows the results.

It is interesting to note that ridership at Elko and Winnemucca follows patterns we’ve seen at the quieter rural stations all around the country. Elko has grown 227% to 9,436 in 2014 from 2,890 in 2003, and Winnemucca grew by 194% over that timeframe, to 5,060 in 2014 from 1,722 in 2003.

This stacked column chart shows the same information in a different view.

So all told, what can one say about the mystery of Sparks? Perhaps the railroad found out that many passengers were purchasing tickets to/from Sparks but actually boarding at Reno, which is just a few miles to the west and part of the same metropolitan area.

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